Fears for 2,000 people trapped in Marawi battle in the Philippines

President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law across the southern third of the Philippines shortly after the fighting erupted, warning the gunmen were involved in an effort by the Islamic State group to set up a local caliphate.

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But street-to-street battles and a relentless military bombing campaign has so far failed to end the crisis in Marawi, one of the biggest Muslim cities in the mainly Catholic Philippines, and authorities expressed alarm about the fate of those trapped.

“They are texting us and calling us for help,” Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesman for the provincial crisis management committee, said of the 2,000 people his office had recorded being unable to leave areas held by the militants.

“They can’t leave because they are afraid of running into checkpoints put up by the gunmen.”

Authorities said the gunmen had already murdered at least 19 civilians, including women and children, while 17 members of the security forces had died in the clashes and 61 militants were killed.

Philippines escalates war on terror

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Eight bodies were found on Sunday morning dumped off a bridge on the outskirts of Marawi, which is normally a bustling city of 200,000 people known as a centre of Islamic culture and education.

Myrna Bandung, a Catholic woman, told reporters at a checkpoint on Monday as she accompanied one of those bodies out of the city that she had been with the eight when they were murdered.

“They did not kill me because I was able to recite a Muslim prayer. The others were not so lucky,” a visibly shocked Bandung said.

Most of the city’s residents had fled to nearby towns.

But adding to the fears for those who remained, the military announced on the weekend that it would intensify a bombing campaign on the areas being held by the militants.

When asked on Monday about fears of civilians being bombed, military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla told reporters that airstrikes would be done with precision.

However he said the bombings would continue in whichever areas the militants were hiding.

Meanwhile, an AFP reporter heard intense gunfire on Monday afternoon near the main university in Marawi, and saw smoke apparently from a bomb explosion rise up in the distance.

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The violence began when dozens of gunmen went on a rampage throughout Marawi in response to an attempt by security forces to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a veteran Filipino militant regarded as the local leader of IS.

The United States regards Hapilon as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists and has offered a bounty of $5 million for his capture.

The gunmen on Tuesday planted black IS flags, took a priest and up to 14 other people hostage from a church, and set fire to buildings. The fate of those hostages remained unknown.

Duterte and military chiefs have said most of the militants belong to the local Maute group, which has declared allegiance to IS and which the government estimates has about 260 armed followers. 

Malaysia, Indonesian, Singaporean and other foreign fighters had joined them, the military said.

Padilla said Monday that some of the more than 100 inmates who had escaped a local jail during the initial rampage last week were also suspected to have joined the fighting.

He said some of those who escaped were members of the Maute group.

Duterte had previously said local criminals were also backing the Maute in Marawi.

Cooperation between Islamist militants, criminals and corrupt politicians is common across Mindanao, where a Muslim separatist rebellion has claimed more than 120,000 lives since the 1970s.

The main Muslim rebel groups have signed accords with the government aimed at forging a final peace, giving up their separatist ambitions in return for autonomy. 

The Maute and other small hardline groups are not interested in negotiating and have in recent years looked to IS to help them.

Duterte said Saturday he was prepared to enforce martial law for as long as was necessary to end the terrorist threat, and even ignore constitutionally mandated safeguards such as Supreme Court and congressional oversight.

Invasion for IS caliphate in Philippines

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Australia to send 30 more soldiers to Afghanistan

Australia will deploy another 30 troops to Afghanistan to help train local soldiers in their fight against Taliban militants.

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NATO has asked all its member countries to re-examine their contributions, deciding it needs several thousand more foreign troops to advise the Afghan army.

The 30 extra soldiers will bring the total Australian contribution in Afghanistan to 300.

They are there to train and advise the local force, now grappling with a resurgent Taliban.

Australia has promised to keep troops in the country until at least next year.

But Defence Minister Marise Payne says that date is under constant review.

“The one thing we cannot afford to do is to allow terrorism to take further and greater root in Afghanistan and then continue to spread its tentacles elsewhere.”

The extra soldiers will be provided in response to a request from NATO around a month ago, although the organisation did not ask for a specific number.

The general in charge says the mission is short by a few thousand troops and has asked all member countries to consider sending more.

Australia is a non-member contributor to the United States-led coalition.

Former army chief Peter Leahy (lay) says the local fighting force still clearly needs international help.

“Frankly, the Afghan army isn’t a particularly happy place. The levels of desertion are fairly high. They’re taking a lot of casualties, and they’re seeing the country being challenged. And we see that the Taliban and some of the terrorist groups, almost at will, at any time and place of their choosing, can mount an attack. So, we do need to advise.”

But not everyone supports the bolstering of troop numbers.

Independent MP and former spy Andrew Wilkie says the war in Afghanistan has already been lost.

He says sending more troops will only inflame the situation.

“If we want to diminish the risk of terrorism within Australia, we should focus on our national interest, and we should pull the almost 300 soldiers out of Afghanistan, and we should pull the well over a thousand soldiers that are engaged further west in the Middle East. I mean, that would be good foreign-security policy. Again, it just comes down to the fact that, whatever the US wants, we deliver.”

Meanwhile, coalition is investigating how one of its air strikes killed more than a hundred civilians in Iraq.

Australian Defence Force chief Mark Binskin has told a Senate Estimates hearing no Australian aircraft were involved in the strike in the city of Mosul in late March.

“While no Australian aircraft were involved in this incident in Mosul, we’re working with our partners to assess the extent at which Australian personnel were involved in the coalition approval process.”

US military officials say Iraqi troops requested the strike.

 

 

 

Plan to strip funding from hospitals will ‘never’ be policy

A plan to strip Commonwealth cash from public hospitals and force patients to pay more for coverage will never be government policy, the health minister has vowed, as Labor prepares to grill officials over the proposal.

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Health Minister Greg Hunt says he has already rejected a plan to radically overhaul hospital funding outlined in documents obtained by Fairfax Media, and would do the same it the idea was ever floated again.

“The story does not reflect government policy. It will not be government policy. It will never be government policy,” Mr Hunt told reporters in Canberra on Monday.

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Bureaucrats have considered a “commonwealth hospital benefit” plan that would pool all funds the federal government now provides for public hospitals, private sector doctors and health insurance rebates and use it to pay a standard amount for services regardless of whether patients were in public or private hospitals.

Under existing arrangements the commonwealth pays close to 40 per cent of the cost of public hospitals.

The department’s presentation to the taskforce suggests that would be reduced to 35 per cent under the proposed scheme.

The plan has been discussed by a taskforce, being run by a private strategic policy think tank Global Access Partners, but is not yet government policy.

Mr Hunt said the proposal pre-dates his time as minister.

“I know that the issue was raised with me coming out of officials meetings with the states as a possible item for COAG and I struck it out,” he said.

“I’ve rejected it once. If it ever comes forward, I’ll reject it again.”

Labor senator Murray Watt, who will quiz senior health department officials during a Senate hearing on Monday, says the reports are extremely disturbing.

“We know Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party have form when it comes to cutting Medicare and cutting funding to public hospitals,” he said.

“If those reports are accurate then this seems to have been a very detailed piece of work and we’ll be very interested in asking about it.”

Opposition health spokeswoman Catherine King said the revelation was typical of the way the coalition did business.

“This is the nature of this government, deals in secret, beavers away … in the background and then presents it to the states and territories as though it’s a fait accompli,” she said.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann insists there is nothing to see.

“There’s no secret taskforce, no secret plan,” he told reporters in Canberra on Monday.

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Katrina Dawson’s family blast police ‘mismanagement’ of Lindt siege

The family of Katrina Dawson, who died in the Lindt Café siege, wanted adverse findings to be made against two senior NSW Police officers for not storming the café sooner and setting an “unacceptably high” threshold for intervening.

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Ms Dawson was killed by police bullet fragments after officers stormed into the cafe soon after gunman Man Haron Monis fatally shot café manager Tori Johnson.

In submissions to the inquest released today, the family said the police officers set a high bar for the trigger used to decide whether to storm the building.

That trigger was based on a hostage’s death or injury, but the Dawson family wanted that to be eased, to an “immediate and imminent risk of death or serious injury”.

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“It is submitted that (both) should both be the subject of adverse findings for setting the trigger at what was an unacceptably high threshold,” the family said in the submission obtained by SBS World News.

Last week’s inquest findings delivered by coroner Michael Barnes said while police were not to blame for the deaths, the 10 minutes it took to enter the building after the gunman fired the first shot was too long.

The Dawson family also criticised another NSW Police officer who was responsible for the siege negotiations for failing to ask federal police for details about Monis.

“No steps were apparently taken to approach the AFP for the information that agency held, or to raise the possibility that the AFP might hold such information,” the family said.

“These steps were not taken at either the identification stage or the post-identification stage.

“At the very least those steps should have been taken as soon as Monis was identified.”

In addition, the Dawson family was also critical on why a federal police assessment about the possibility of Monis having a bomb in his backpack was not obtained by NSW Police.

The family said it did not appear the force failed to request that information because of protocol.

“Rather, a cogent explanation as to why the information was not sought is that a mindset was held by the NSWPF that whatever might have been offered by federal agencies was not needed,” the family said.

The family also criticised a psychiatrist involved in assessing Monis’s dangerousness, saying it was flawed.

“That advice grossly underestimated Monis’s capacity for violence,” the family said.

“In these submissions we argue that the NSW Police response to the siege was mismanaged both as to the circumstances leading to the initiation of the Emergency Action, and in the conduct of the Emergency Action itself.”

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Ego-free Warburton, the Lions captain who might not play

The Lions require every player to check in their ego when they collect their kit and in Warburton, the second man after Martin Johnson to lead the team on successive tours, they have the epitome of such selflessness.

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Flanker Warburton faces a real battle for a test slot and Gatland recognises that if there is one player could be named captain, not be picked, and still give his absolute all the cause, then it is the Welshman.

“One of the things I admire about Sam is that it’s not about Sam Warburton, it’s about the team first,” Gatland said when announcing his appointment last month.

“He would be the first one to understand that if someone is better than him in the number seven position, whether it’s Sean O’Brien or Justin Tipuric or whoever else, and we picked him over Sam, then Sam would understand that.”

Gatland knows Warburton intimately of course, not only through their shared Lions experience in Australia four years ago but through their years together as coach and captain of Wales.

This year though, both have vacated those positions. Gatland took a sabbatical to concentrate on the Lions whereas Warburton stood down from the captaincy after six years to concentrate on his own form.

It proved an inspired decision as he seemed to rediscover the trademark energy that had slipped out of his game during his injury-ravaged previous season.

Typically of Warburton, he was happy to pack down on the blindside for Wales in this year’s Six Nations, with Tiupric selected ahead of him at openside, and was his usual, ultra-reliable self.

So, in the absence of another stand-out candidate, Warburton’s selection as Lions skipper was warmly received, with plaudits raining down on a man who, just like Johnson, leads not with big speeches, but by example.

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It is often forgotten that he was only 22 when selected as Wales captain and 24 when he led the Lions.

He has enjoyed some great times with both, but the two pinnacles of his international career to date both come with asterisks that leave him with unfinished business.

The first was the World Cup semi-final of 2011 in New Zealand when he was sent off after 20 minutes for a tip-tackle and had to watch as Wales fell to an agonising 9-8 loss to France.

Then on the Lions tour, having played superbly in the first two matches, he missed the decider with a hamstring injury and was again on the sidelines as compatriot Alun Wyn Jones led the side to victory.

Now, he has the chance to do what only one man has ever done before – lead the Lions to a series victory in New Zealand.

“I genuinely didn’t think I’d be a front runner for the captaincy again because I thought it was going to be one of the captains from the home nations,” he said.

“I’m a lot more relaxed this time round. I found 2013 really tough, being only 24. Now I feel like although I am still quite a young player, I’ve got a lot of caps and am one of the experienced guys.

“In 2013 it was amazing, all fresh and new, but this is going to be the toughest thing I’ve done – it’s the ultimate challenge in rugby.”

(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)

Cyclone Mora churns towards Bangladesh

An intensifying cyclone is churning north towards Bangladesh following heavy rain in Sri Lanka and thunderstorms in eastern India which have killed almost 200 people.

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Impoverished Bangladesh, hit by cyclones every year, warned on Monday some low-lying coastal areas were likely to be inundated by a storm surge of 1.2 to 1.5 metres above normal and raised the storm danger signal, on a scale of one to 10, to seven.

Cyclone Mora was expected to make landfall on Tuesday morning.

Floods and landslides in tropical Sri Lanka, off India’s southern tip, have killed at least 169 people in recent days, authorities said, with 24 killed in storms in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, either by lightning strikes or under collapsed village huts.

India warned of heavy rain in the northeastern states of Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh as Mora moved further up the Bay of Bengal.

Floods reached roof level and cut off access to many rural Sri Lankan villages, disrupting life for half a million people, many of them workers on rubber plantations, officials said.

Villagers in Agalawatte, in a key rubber-growing area 74 km southeast of the capital, Colombo, said they were losing hope of water levels falling soon after the heaviest rain since 2003. Fifty-three villagers died and 58 were missing.

“All access to our village is cut off. A landslide took place inside the village and several houses are buried,” Mohomed Abdulla, 46, said.

Some areas in the southern coastal district of Galle, popular with foreign tourists, have not received relief due to lack of access.

“My entire village is cut off and nobody can come to this village,” C.M. Chandrapla, 54, said by phone from the tourist village of Neluwa.

“There have been no supplies for the past two days. Water has gone above three-storey buildings and people survive by running to higher ground.”

Bangladesh is hit by storms, many of them devastating, every year. Half a million people had their lives disrupted in low-lying coastal areas such as Barisal and Chittagong in May last year.

It is still recovering from flash floods that hit the northeast, affecting millions of people, in April. Rice prices have reached record highs and state reserves are at 10-year lows in the wake of flooding that wiped out around 700,000 tonnes of rice.

Authorities will relocate thousands from coastal areas before Mora hits, officials said. About 10 million of Bangladesh’s population of 160 million live in low-lying coastal areas.

“We have taken all sorts of steps to minimise any losses, including moving people away from the most vulnerable areas,” Kazi Adbur Rahman, a senior government official in Cox’s Bazaar, said.

The Sri Lankan military has sent in helicopters and boats in rescue efforts in the most widespread disaster since the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. About 100 people were missing in total.

The meteorology department on Monday forecast torrential rains over the following 36 hours.

Nationals reject indigenous proposal

Malcolm Turnbull faces a Nationals revolt over an ambitious plan for a body to provide indigenous oversight of law making.

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A convention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in central Australia last week recommended enshrining in the constitution an advisory body to give indigenous people a say on laws and policies that impact them.

Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce said while he accepted constitutional recognition, the proposed new body was self-defeating and placing in jeopardy any bipartisan support for the Uluru statement.

“(If you) ask for something that will not be supported by the Australian people, such as another chamber in politics or something that sits beside or above the Senate, that idea just won’t fly,” Mr Joyce told reporters in Canberra on Monday.

The deputy prime minister said the final plan needed to be something the government could “sell to the Australian people”.

Cape York Institute senior adviser Shirleen Morris said there was no suggestion of a third chamber of parliament.

“All it is, is a constitutional mechanism guaranteeing that indigenous people can have a say, can give advice on laws and policies that are made about them,” she said.

Nationals MP George Christensen said he would vote against the referendum bill in parliament if it proposed a new representative body.

“If they want to have recognition of the first peoples in the constitution in a preamble or a way that recognises them as the first people of the nation, so be it,” he told Sky News.

“But this is dangerous to democracy if we start giving one group special privileges.”

A Referendum Council leader is urging politicians to wait for its final recommendations on how best to recognise indigenous people before speculating on the prospects of success.

Co-chairman Mark Leibler said a report from its indigenous steering committee, due in the next few days, would add to the Uluru statement.

“Obviously, the Referendum Council is not going to recommend any particular referendum which is opposed by our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” Mr Leibler said.

Federal Labor frontbencher Linda Burney, a Wiradjuri woman, said the Uluru proposals were all “very possible” and the task now was to see how they could be applied.

She noted the statement was silent on constitutional recognition, which she saw as an important change, and scrapping the constitutional race power.

“I would advocate strongly that we do have to deal with the race powers because if we don’t do that it could actually still give the parliament the capacity to do away with a body of any sort within the constitution,” she said.

Ken Wyatt, the first federal indigenous minister, is confident the council’s work on top of six years of discussion will lead to a referendum in 2018.

Greens MP Adam Bandt said when it came to a referendum, the parliament was probably more conservative than the Australian population.

“It’s time for a treaty in Australia,” he said.

Treasury part of bank levy leak inquiry

Treasury secretary John Fraser will be devastated if an apparent leak of the Turnbull government’s proposed bank levy prior to the budget came from his department.

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The value of bank shares tumbled $14 billion prior to Treasurer Scott Morrison announcing on May 9 the $6.2 billion levy that will hit Australia’s big five banks.

Mr Fraser on Monday told a Senate hearing he became aware of a news story pre-empting the announcement during the budget lock-up.

He phoned Australian Securities and Investments Commission chairman Greg Medcraft the following morning.

ASIC has since involved the Australian Federal Police, while Treasury has also conducted an internal review.

“I would be devastated if the leak came from Treasury,” Mr Fraser told senators.

Revenue from the levy has been brought into question after the big four banks estimated it would raise less than $1 billion after tax in the first year.

Mr Fraser said his department was still undertaking a confidential process with the banks but saw no reason to revise Treasury’s revenue forecasts.

It was a complex issue that took into account timing of payments, the implication of dividend payments and interactions between the banks.

Treasury discussed the design of the levy over several weeks in the lead-up to the budget.

Labor has previously accused the government of rushing through the measure, but the hearing was told there were consultations with the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority and Reserve Bank which started as far back as March.

“We talked with the regulators well in advance of the budget,” John Lonsdale, Treasury’s deputy secretary for its markets group, told the hearing.

It heard the government plans to introduce legislation to parliament this week.

McCain: Putin a greater threat than ISIS

One of America’s most powerful Republicans, Senator John McCain says Russian President Valdimir Putin is more threatening than Islamic State for destroying the fundamentals of democracy.

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Senator McCain told ABC’s 7.30 program on Monday night that Mr Putin “is the premier and most important threat, more so than ISIS”.

“I think ISIS can do terrible things, and I worry a lot about what is happening with the Muslim faith and I worry about a whole lot of things about it, but it is the Russians who are trying – who tried to destroy the very fundamentals of democracy and that is to change the outcome of an American election,” he said during his stint as a guest of the US study centre at the University of Sydney

“I have seen no evidence they succeeded but they tried and they are still trying. They just tried to affect the outcome of the French election.”

He said the US needed to respond with increased sanctions against Russia for trying to influence the presidential election in November.

Senator McCain says China can restrain North Korea from using nuclear weapons.

“I don’t think it’s acceptable for the United States of America to have an intercontinental ballistic missile or a missile aimed at Australia with a nuclear weapon on it and depend on our ability to counter it with an anti-missile capability,” he says.

He says he feels nervous “from time-to-time” with US President Donald Trump at the helm of the free world.

“I do believe that the president has great confidence in his national security team. I do believe that most of the time he accepts their advice and counsel,” he says.

But Senator McCain says he reacts to what the president does, not what he says.

His comments come as German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the US was no longer a reliable partner for her nation or Europe.

“When America abandons its leadership then bad things happen and that vacuum is filled which evil influences. So I appreciate the European’s viewpoint and their repudiation of Donald Trump but my friends, why don’t they say, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t have given Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize before he was ever even elected.'”

It comes as the Australian government announced on Monday it would send another 30 troops to Afghanistan at America’s request, boosting troop numbers to 300.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Australia and the US shared “one of the closest intelligence-sharing relationships that one could imagine”.

“The United States is indispensable and the vital for Australia’s national security and the security and safety of our citizens,” she says.

Live-streamed child sexual abuse contributing to global crime ‘pandemic’

Technological advancements, such as faster internet, live streaming and expanding storage, are also leading to ballooning rates of online child sexual abuse, new research has found.

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Videos and images of child abuse, as well as the more recent trend of live-streaming child exploitation, are all on the rise within Australia, according Anti-Slavery Australia’s ‘Behind the Screen’ report.

One of the researchers, senior law lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney Ian Dobinson, said instances of ‘live-distant child abuse’ is growing. The “sickening” practice involves using a webcam to broadcast real-time incidences of child sexual abuse to remote locations.

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Mr Dobinson says Australian laws haven’t kept up with technology and there is a “disconnect” in the sentences handed down for crimes committed online compared with those for abuse involving real-life contact with a child.

“Yes there is a difference between online offending and contact offending, but in many cases there is a real connection between the two – it’s contact offending that generates the images,” Mr Dobinson said.

“Each one of those images is a scene of a crime which is incredibly severe and serious in terms of the way we could classify our offences.”

In cases of live streaming, “the person might as well be there in the room with the adult who is sexually abusing the child”.

But police officers interviewed as part of the study said live streaming is extremely hard to detect because it is not stored anywhere.

The report calls for a peak body to be established in Australia to manage the nation’s combined effort against child sexual abuse online.

In 2013-15, the volume of child sexual abuse material increased by more than 400 per cent according to Internet Watch Foundation.

Jennifer Burn is the director of Anti-Slavery Australia and said there has been a “phenomenal” increase in child abuse material available online.

“Huge advances in modern technology has fueled the growth of child exploitation material,” she said.

“The technology has increased so substantially and brought with it so many benefits to all of us in our everyday lives, but it also has a dark side and that is that technology enables the ready facilitation of any kind of material but including material showing children being exploited.”

A senior police officer is quoted in the report speaking about the sheer scale of material being seized by police.

“Back in the early 2000s, we were dealing with kilobytes and megabytes, now we are dealing with petabytes, mainly terabytes now when we do our seizures,” the officer said.

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